The Abbas-Gantz Encounter: Much Ado about Nothing in the Middle East

The Abbas-Gantz Encounter: Much Ado about Nothing in the Middle East
The surprise visit between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was neither a Palestinian nor an Israeli initiative. Rather, it was the Biden administration's attempt at diplomatic posturing, writes Khalil E. Jahshan.
10 min read
19 Jan, 2022
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on March 10, 2010. [Getty]

On December 28, 2021, a surprising development took place in the Middle East: Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas held a rare meeting in Israel, the first in more than a decade, with a high-level Israeli cabinet official to discuss bilateral Palestinian-Israeli concerns. 

Although the two leaders met earlier at PA headquarters in Ramallah on August 29, the surprising visit by Abbas with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was rather intriguing, considering the defunct status of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and the deteriorating security situation under Israeli occupation.

In addition, this seemingly personal encounter was held at Gantz’s residence in Rosh Ha’ayin, a small city in central Israel built in 1949 on the land of the ethnically depopulated Palestinian village of Majdal Yaba.

The meeting in question did not happen in a political vacuum. It occurred after months of political jockeying by the Biden Administration to restore a modicum of normalcy to its diplomatic relations with the PA after the disastrous deterioration during President Donald Trump’s tenure at the White House.

"The surprising visit by Abbas with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was rather intriguing, considering the defunct status of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and the deteriorating security situation under Israeli occupation"

The first year of the new American administration heralded a series of symbolic economic and political gestures by Washington aimed at shoring up the Palestinian government in Ramallah, with the aim of maintaining the fiction of American adherence to the obsolete two-state solution.

Consequently, several meetings were held between the two sides involving a number of American officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yael Lempert, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, among others.

Throughout their meetings with US officials, the Palestinian leaders urged the American administration to adopt a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and lobbied them to normalise relations with the Palestinian side across the board, particularly in the political, diplomatic, and economic spheres.

Palestinian Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh told Axios that President Abbas personally “warned national security advisor Jake Sullivan … that more active U.S. diplomatic engagement is needed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to avoid a new crisis in the region.”

The Abbas-Gantz meeting emerged essentially as the direct US response to these appeals. It was not necessarily an Israeli or a Palestinian initiative, nor a joint effort by the two parties to confront common challenges. Instead, it was an American attempt to placate the Palestinians by arranging this short-lived diplomatic marriage of convenience in the absence of more effective options in the administration’s political arsenal.

The Palestinian Rationale

The situation on the Palestinian side over the past decade has been increasingly chaotic and unstable due to internal and external challenges, particularly considering antagonistic policies pursued by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its supporters in the Trump White House. 

The Palestinian Authority has been facing existential economic and political threats on at least four main fronts that might have impacted the decision to meet with Gantz. First, the Biden Administration is unable (or unwilling) to engage in any serious Middle East peace initiative in the near and medium term, one that would ensure the basic aspirations of the Palestinian people for ending Israeli occupation and building their own independent state. 

Second, Arab economic and diplomatic support has been dwindling as the wave of normalisation with Israel by the Arab authoritarian axis continues to take hold and expand to include new countries. 

Third, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government has adamantly ruled out the possibility of renewing any peace talks with the Palestinians; this signalled the total demise of the so-called Oslo process that was initially based on the two-state solution, which is still espoused by the PA leadership for lack of creativity and viable options. Fourth, Abbas has steadily lost public support: some 80 percent of Palestinians want him to resign.

Consequently, once again the PA found itself isolated and at the mercy of economic and diplomatic largesse by Washington and various EU capitals. The Palestinian leadership’s minimalist strategy at this point is to pursue a western-sponsored “political horizon,” sustained by a prolonged American “diplomatic umbrella,” until Israel recovers its sanity and resumes political talks with the Palestinians.

In the words of key Abbas aide Hussein al-Sheikh, “We told Sullivan that we want to see a U.S. diplomatic plan. We said that we don’t want the Biden administration to wake up only when there is a crisis. There must be a diplomatic umbrella that will create hope.”

Abbas, who was last elected for a four-year term on January 9, 2005, might not be as politically vulnerable as Naftali Bennett; nonetheless, he faces his own internal challenges because he does not necessarily preside over a homogeneous and supportive political constituency, as clearly reflected in his low public opinion ratings. 

"Once again the PA found itself isolated and at the mercy of economic and diplomatic largesse by Washington and various EU capitals"

His risky meeting with Gantz generated harsh criticism across Palestinian society, including from his own Fatah political base. Nasser al-Qudwa, the former PLO ambassador to the United Nations, said that should not have happened at this particular time when Palestinians are resisting “settler colonialism” on the anniversary of the launch of the armed revolution. Al-Qudwa appealed to all PLO factions “to take a clear stand against the meeting.”

Public criticism of the Abbas-Gantz meeting was not limited by any means to dissidents within Fatah. Palestinian factions including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and others joined the rash of criticism. A statement by the PFLP said the meeting with Gantz “contradicted national positions and demands” and will likely “disrupt Palestinian and Arab efforts to restore unity and mobilise the people to resist….” 

Furthermore, Palestinian affairs experts from all backgrounds were equally hard in their assessments. In addition to typical accusations of inconsistency and lack of vision, they also accused Abbas of trying “to use this limited Israeli overture to shore up his declining influence within the Palestinian Authority.”

As expected, the Abbas camp responded by insisting that the PA has succeeded in improving relations with Washington and putting the Palestinian issue back on the agenda. The meeting with Gantz, they argued, has also succeeded in reversing entrenched Israeli policies under Netanyahu aimed at totally marginalising Abbas and the PA.

The Israeli Rationale

On the Israeli side, although the meeting with Abbas was quite risky politically for the governing coalition, Prime Minister Bennett appeared to condone it as a necessary evil aimed at deflecting US pressure on Israel to make symbolic gestures toward the Palestinians. 

The Israeli government, however, consistently characterised the agenda of the meeting as fully focused on “security and civil matters,” to blunt any accusations within Israel that Bennett is potentially discussing peace options with the Palestinians—something he has vehemently excluded from his political agenda. 

In his first major international interview after succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu in June 2021, Bennett reiterated his opposition to Palestinian sovereignty and made it clear that “he would expand West Bank settlements that Mr. Biden opposes, declined to back American plans to reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem and ruled out reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians under his watch.”

The denials and downplayed expectations from the meeting did not assuage the highly agitated and right-leaning Israeli public opinion, which has been effectively mobilised by successive Israeli governments against a peaceful compromise with the Palestinian Authority that would require any serious territorial adjustment and a rollback of settlements and colonial expansion. 

Even though Gantz coordinated with Bennett and informed key members of the cabinet in advance about the Abbas visit, the event angered right-wing politicians within and outside the coalition and generated some strongly worded criticism, particularly of Gantz.

Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin stated, “I would not invite to my home someone who pays salaries to murderers of Israelis and who is trying to put me on trial for war crimes.” Even Bennett, according to The Jerusalem Post, allegedly told confidants that “he was not in favour of the idea but could not stop it.”

The intense political bickering on the right clearly put Gantz on the defensive. He was described by the Times of Israel as “disappointed” by the criticism; however, he publicly pushed back against his detractors and vowed to pursue future meetings with Abbas. 

As tough and thick skinned as he tried to appear publicly, Gantz still resorted to hiding behind the fig leaf of security; he emphasised that he was mainly motivated by “the need to maintain Israel’s security” and to prevent a war with Hamas. Gantz was quoted a few days later by The Jerusalem Post as saying, “The need to look after the safety of Israel’s citizens and the fight against Hamas is the main reason I met with Abbas.”

"If Washington were serious about its commitment to freedom for all, it behoves Mr. Biden, first and foremost, to stop this charade of accommodating Israeli rejection of peace with the Palestinians"

The American Spin

As the facilitator and promoter of this event, the Biden Administration did not hide its pleasure with the conduct and results of the meeting and attempted to portray it as potentially conducive to regional stability and prosperity.

US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price tweeted on December 29, 2021, “The U.S. is very pleased Defence Minister @GantzBe hosted PA President Abbas at his home in Israel. We hope confidence-building measures discussed will accelerate momentum to further advance freedom, security, and prosperity for Palestinians and Israelis alike in 2022.”

Price was referring to several steps promised by Gantz after his meeting with Abbas to alleviate harsh living conditions for Palestinians residing under occupation in the West Bank. These measures included the following:

  1. The United States agreed to provide the PA with a $32.2 million loan on Palestinian tax revenues that Israel collects to ease the Palestinian government’s cash flow problems.
  2. Israel promised to “legalise the status” of 9,500 undocumented Palestinians and foreigners living in the West Bank and Gaza.
  3. Gantz pledged to ease restrictions on change of residency requests for Palestinians.
  4. Israel committed to increase the number of “VIP permits” to Palestinian officials to travel within the Palestinian territories.
  5. The Israeli defence ministry promised to issue 1,100 commercial passes to “senior” Palestinian businessmen to conduct their commercial affairs.
  6. Gantz made additional promises related to economic restrictions placed on the Palestinians including lower fees on fuel purchases and on goods circulating to and from the West Bank.

With all due respect to the Biden Administration and its earlier commitments to more freedom, stability, and prosperity in the region, all these steps are frankly irrelevant to ending the 55-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Israel’s de facto hegemony over Gaza.

In reality, these measures are more likely to extend the lifespan of Israeli occupation indefinitely and render the Palestinian yearning for freedom and independence from military occupation virtually unattainable.

If Washington were serious about its commitment to freedom for all, it behoves Mr. Biden, first and foremost, to stop this charade of accommodating Israeli rejection of peace with the Palestinians. For its part, the Palestinian Authority—whether readily or under duress—must curb its tendency to accept the crumbs that fall from the occupier’s table after meetings such as the one between Abbas and Gantz.

It is high time for the United States to muster sufficient moral and political courage to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and pursue self-determination for the Palestinian people.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Centre Washington DC.

Follow him on Twitter: @khalilejahshan

This article was originally published by Arab Centre Washington DC on January 18, 2022, and was republished with permission.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.